A couple of years ago I accidentally found myself outside the Royal Society, Britain’s 400-year old elite scientific society. I decided to pop in and say hello. Unfortunately, my ambitions were thwarted by a receptionist asking if I was entering as a Fellow or the guest of a Fellow. I was neither, and ‘I like science’ apparently wasn’t an appropriate substitute. I was barred entry. But, with my eyes flashing and foreboding orchestral music playing in the background, I swore that I would return. And, last Friday, I finally got that opportunity. Unexpectedly this came not from my interest in science, but rather my second major interest – comedy. I was performing as part of ScienceShowoff which, similarly to the Bright Club, provides opportunities for academics to communicate their work via a 9-minute live performance.1 They’re essentially academic open-mic nights, and as such the boundaries between lecture and stand-up comedy are interestingly blurred.
Personally, I’ve performed twice for both ScienceShowoff and the Bright Club, as well as appearing as ‘resident scientist’ for the comedy duo Bubblegum. But I came to science standup from a background of non-scientific comedy, which makes me unusual in an environment usually composed of science communicators turned first-time standups. Their experiences are well-documented on Twitter, usually in the form ‘OMG THAT WAS ACTUALLY FUN NOT GUT-WRENTCHINGLY UNPLEASANT #CANDOITAGAINPLZ?’. My converse experience is that I am often asked what it’s like to do comedy limited to scientific topics – the unspoken implication usually being that I’m engaged in some form of Mission Impossible, though with fewer explosions (dependent on the gig). My answer, somewhat boringly, is that talking about science comedically doesn’t have to be that different to talking about anything comedically, as I suggested in a podcasted interview for the Bright Club. As the brilliant #overlyhonestmethods hashtag showed us, the laboratory can be as productive of observational/confessional comedy as the living room.2
But that’s a bit boring. Let’s explore a little. As I’ve suggested in another interview (self-publicist, moi? I haven’t got time for self-publicity I’m too busy preparing for this), both comedy and science involve presenting a series of logical chains.3 If your audience don’t follow your premises then they might not ‘get’ your conclusion, whether that be ‘… and due to these conjugated quantities a measurement of electron spin can instantaneously determine the spin of a second electron’, or ‘…or are you just pleased to see me?’. Maximising comprehension is generally a good thing in both science and comedy. But an advantage of comedy is that it can avoid those topics which might defy easy comprehension. As Dara O’Briain points out to critics of his skits on Christianity, “no, I don’t do jokes about Muslims. And that’s because a) I don’t know the first thing about Islam and b) neither do you.” But such an attitude would cause ever-so-slight problems in the field of science communication…
Science communication comedy (sci-comm-com), i.e. using comedy as a tool of science communication, is just a subset of science comedy. You can make jokes about science with no intention of communicating scientific ideas (much of Robin Ince’s material takes this approach). But it’s an interesting subset. The product of comedy and sci-comm squares the above effect – if you want to explain science via the medium of joke, you need to make sure the audience ‘get’ both your scientific and your comedic premises. You can have the funniest science-based joke in the world, but the audience won’t laugh unless they know the science. Conversely, you can have a fantastically clear explanation of some science, but the time spent doing that can slow the comedic pace of the routine. It’s difficult, though not to say impossible, for more esoteric subject matter to produce material with a balanced joke:fact ratio.4 In fact, writing any joke about esoteric subject matter which doesn’t risk an embarrassing silence is pretty difficult. Which, ladies and gentleman, is the reason we need better science education. Okay there are other reasons, but this is the main one.
But on many views of sci-comm, this isn’t a problem. Even just a few jokes can just make a ‘science lecture’ more fun and engaging, which is helpful both for that particular lesson and for the public image of science/scientists more generally. And those jokes don’t even have to be about science. A common tactic is to intersperse the science with scientifically-themed takes on more obviously humorous topics, like social interactions, everyday foibles, or the end of humanity. Which works nicely in principle, although I do sometimes worry about frequent resorting to old tropes of scientists as geeky and awkward-but-adorable in social situations. Fine, until everyone uses that tactic…5. Particularly as Peep Show has used up comedy’s allocated quota of Social Awkward for the next 450 years.
However, for those interested in alternative forms of science-in-public – more Public Engagement than Public Understanding (PES rather than PUS, in hip lingo) – these sci-comm-com trends may be more worrying. The whole image of a stand-up comedy performance reflects the traditional image of sci-comm that PES pushes against – one elite person elevated over an attentive audience, whose role is purely to respond as one mass by laughing, or being awestruck by the science, or whatever. Of course, standup has frequently been used as a powerful tool for anti-elitism and criticism; most obviously by mocking those in power, but also by self-mockery (standup ridicules their own flaws, audience recognises flaws in themselves, audience – hopefully – changes behaviour). Science is certainly used as a tool for mockery, even by slightly higher-profile comedians like Dara O’Briain (1h10 in this is interesting for many reasons. And also very very funny). But self-mockery in science comedy is limited to those cosy tropes of scientists as a bit geeky etc. etc. etc. It was notable, if predictable, that the only performer at the Royal Society show to poke fun at science-as-a-practice was the sociologist-historian Alice Bell. Which is odd as, in the field of sci-comm, scientists and sociologists are usually well on the same wavelength <hint: sarcasm>.
[Just one point to counter that slightly snarky one above: after the show I ended up talking to an actual scientist – Martin Austwick, performer of this lovely song – who proved very amenable to me debunking his misapprehensions of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. Comedy is a medium of harmony. Make Jokes Not War].
I doubt science comedy could fix sci-comm debates. It’s hard enough to write a joke anyway, never mind one that simultaneously provides both scientific education and a reflexive comment on the state of science today. And still get a laugh. The punchline is that science comedy is a kind of barometer of the state of sci-comm. At the moment it’s reminiscent of the political comedy of the 1980s – though instead of shouting about how bad the government is, there’s shouting about how great science is. It’s fine for raising awareness, but not maximising nuance, inventiveness, or variety. But alongside the political comedy of the ‘80s came ‘alternative’ comedy, prompting new approaches to the seemingly self-evident idea of the ‘joke’ and spawning a new generation of experimental and self-critical comics. It made comedy just that bit more interesting for everyone involved – practitioners, critics, and audiences alike. Maybe sci-comm-com just needs a few more hecklers.
Also, is it just me, or – when Brian Cox smiles, does he look like a thin Michael McIntyre?
1 = The distinction: where the Bright Club specifies comedy performances but is open to academics from any field, ScienceShowoff specifies a science background but is open to any form of 9-minute live performance. Both are a lot of fun and need more people to get involved hint hint hint hint.
2 = Although it’s interesting to note that the mere idea of lab results being dependent on donut presence produces amusement. Would this hashtag be as amusing if applied to an office, or a building site, or a school? I think yes it could be, but it’s worth mulling over.
3 = Even surrealist comedy frequently follows a strict internal logic. John Cleese’s sketch-writing tactic was to take a recognisable setting, introduce one nonsensical element, and then work out sensible consequences from there, as described (I think) by Michael Palin in his fascinating and very lovely diaries.
4= The excellent Matt Parker has, in my experience, come the closest to combining both jokes and mathematical exposition in a single structure, though I feel even his sets can be divided into joke-heavy and maths-heavy segments.
5 = But then again, Marsh’s First Law of Standup does state that as the duration of any standup gig increases, the probability of the utterance ‘so I’m single…’ tends rapidly to one. This has been experimentally verified on far too many occasions.
An interesting and semi-relevant book which I’d recommend is Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s Science On Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen. Though I’ve only read the first three chapters currently so don’t blame me if it gets rubbish after that.